Vulture nemesis still in drug store shelves

Ban on diclofenac flouted by over a third of the pharmacies

Diclofenac, the drug that drove the vulture population in India to near extinction a few years back, is still being illegally sold to dairy farmers and livestock owners across the country, a study has found.

The drug was widely used as a pain reliever in cattle. It was banned by the government in 2006 after it was found to be responsible for the massive decline—up to 99.9 per cent—in the population of three vulture species of the genus Gyps. The vultures that fed on dead cattle were poisoned by the diclofenac present in the carcasses.

A team of researchers at the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) in the UK found that diclofenac is still being illegally sold to livestock owners in over one-third of Indian pharmacies.

The team approached 250 veterinary and general pharmacies in 11 Indian states from November 2007 to June 2010, asking for a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug to treat pain in cattle. The researchers wrote in the September issue of the journal Oryx that around 36 per cent shops sold diclofenac. Around 29 per cent sold ketoprofen, another livestock drug found to be lethal to vultures. RSPB’s Chris Bowden, who was closely associated with the study, says: “Some found on sale were still veterinary formulations. Most diclofenac is, however, ‘human diclofenac’ which is then being sold for veterinary use and used by veterinary practitioners, and this is undoubtedly the main source of diclofenac in cattle”.

What works to the advantage of illegal buyers is the size of the vials in which the drug is sold. “The vials are also often large and convenient for veterinary purposes, and it is this that we are calling for a halt to. Whether the companies stop producing them or legislation outlaws it, it must be stopped. We believe that those genuinely buying diclofenac for human use will have no reason to object to this,” says Bowden.

Drug store owners unabashedly offered other pills as well. “Nimesulide was being offered and is actually legally on sale as a veterinary painkiller. We have no idea whether it kills vultures,” Bowden says.

Encouragingly, the team found that meloxicam, a safer alternative to diclofenanc, was being offered in 70 per cent of pharmacies. It’s still surprising that despite meloxicam being on the shelves, shopkeepers are flouting the government ban. Bowden says, “Many shopkeepers were aware of the ban, but people are familiar with diclofenac, and may not be so familiar with meloxicam. Diclofenac is still cheap, especially in the larger vials, so the combined effect is a demand and familiarity for diclofenac.”

Jharkand-based vulture conservationist Satya Prakash, who was also involved in the Oryx study, says the availability of 30ml vials for human use is the biggest problem. “They should be banned with immediate effect,” he says. Prakash also notes that meloxicam is not as potent as diclofenac, so quacks and semi-trained veterinarians use it frequently. “It (diclofenac) can be bought for Rs 20 in the black market. Compared to the Rs 60 cost of meloxicam, that's quite a bargain for farmers who have small-scale dairies.”

Recent surveys indicated that the decline of vulture numbers has slowed down, and has reduced from 40 per cent to 18 per cent per year since the ban. Prakash says that the status of vultures is still poor in the country. “Only Jharkand has seen some rise in their population; in some states the numbers have stabilised, while in others it is still decreasing.” He says that due to continuous media campaigning against diclofenac, shopkeepers in Jharkand have become aware and are wary of selling it for vetenirary purposes.

Bowden adds, “Vultures are not beginning to recover from the declines as yet and we strongly suspect that declines are continuing dangerously towards extinction. Although there is some progress with reducing the amount of diclofenac, it is not nearly enough as yet, and the issue of human diclofenac being used for veterinary purposes threatens to undermine all efforts so far.”

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